SF Public Press wins local journalism award


SF Public Press has won its first journalism award!

Together with McSweeney’s, the Public Press has received an award in the “news media” category in the annual James Madison freedom of information contest from the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

The award is for the work the two organizations did to produce the Bay Bridge Report, a three-month collaboration that resulted in an eight-page section in the one-time experimental newspaper, the San Francisco Panorama, explaining why the reconstruction of the eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge will cost in excess of $12 billion, twice what public agencies have previously acknowledged. Our congratulations to reporters Bob Porterfield and Patricia Decker for their prizeworthy work!

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The press release:

Rebecca Bowe, co-chair, SPJ NorCal Freedom of Information Committee
Ph: 415-487-2545
Email: rebeccab [AT] sfbg.com

More than a dozen individuals and organizations will be honored for advancing freedom of information and the First Amendment when the Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California Chapter (SPJ NorCal), holds its 25th Annual James Madison Awards Banquet on March 16 in San Francisco.

Mary Fricker, a renowned Bay Area investigative journalist whose work has most recently been showcased as part of the Chauncey Bailey Project, will be honored for a long list of accomplishments with the Norwin S. Yoffie Award for Career Achievement, named for one of the founders of SPJ NorCal’s Freedom of Information Committee.

Rachele Kanigel, an associate professor of journalism and advisor to Golden Gate Xpress publications at San Francisco State University, who has been highly involved in student press rights work nationally, will be honored with the Educator of the Year award, named for the late SPJ NorCal chapter president, Beverly Kees.

SF Public Press / McSweeney's will be honored with a News Media award for its detailed report on cost overruns for the east span replacement of the Bay Bridge.

Reporters Sean Webby of the San Jose Mercury News and G.W. Schulz of the Center for Investigative Reporting, each of whom published hard-hitting investigative series exploring police misconduct and homeland security funding, respectively, are both winners of the Professional Journalist award.

State Senator Leland Yee will receive the Public Official award for his commitment to open government and for helping to craft legislation that protects professional journalists and journalism students.

Ann Brick, who served as staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (ACLU-NC) for 20 years until her recent retirement, will be honored for an impressive career marked by several high-profile First Amendment cases, such as the AT&T / National Security Agency wiretapping lawsuit filed in 2006.

Other honorees include Daniel Borenstein of the Contra Costa Times for his series of columns spotlighting public-employee pension spiking. Nonprofit Californians Aware is being recognized for its commitment to defending the public's right to know, even after being hit with burdensome attorney's fees when it tried to challenge a violation of state open-meeting laws. Reporters Phillip Reese of The Sacramento Bee and Thomas Peele and Daniel Willis of the Bay Area News Group will be honored with Computer Assisted Reporting awards for creating vast databases using public records that were tough to obtain. Melissa Nix will receive the Citizen Award for her hard work bringing to light police mishandling of the mysterious death of Hugues de la Plaza. And Rita Williams of KTVU-TV News will receive the Public Service award for fighting to establish a media room for broadcast news reporters in the San Francisco federal building.

We also are awarding a photojournalist, who, as a student at San Francisco State University, successfully invoked California’s shield law to fend off efforts by police to obtain photos he took at the scene of a murder. The student feared for his life after witnessing the murder and remains anonymous.

The James Madison Freedom of Information Awards is named for the creative force behind the First Amendment and honors local journalists, organizations, public officials and private citizens who have fought for freedom of speech, press, and peaceable assembly, and for public access to government meetings and records and have promoted the public’s right to know. Award winners are selected by SPJ NorCal’s Freedom of Information Committee.

This year's awards banquet is to take place the evening of March 16 at the New Delhi Restaurant, 160 Ellis St., San Francisco. Tickets can be purchased via the SPJ NorCal website, http://norcalspj.wordpress.com.

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FRIDAY, FEB. 12, 2010

The following is a complete list of award recipients:


• Mary Fricker was a business writer for Santa Rosa’s The Press Democrat for 20 years before retiring. Admired by her colleagues as a pit-bull of a researcher” with organizational skills that “shame the lot of us,” Fricker was instrumental in producing what is still considered the most thorough investigation of what went wrong the last time our banks went astray, in “Inside Job: The Looting of America's Savings and Loans.” Fricker has also selflessly assisted others in their own investigative projects. Through Investigative Reporters and Editors, she has donated time to helping others navigate their own research and has taught young journalists how to get at the needed information efficiently. Fricker has been recognized with many awards for investigative journalism, including the UCLA Gerald Loeb Award and the George Polk Award. Her work has most recently been showcased through the Chauncey Bailey Project, for which Fricker devoted countless volunteer hours to researching the now-defunct Your Black Muslim Bakery and its numerous criminal and ethical violations. The project is named for the Oakland Post editor who was shot down during his own investigation of the bakery.


• Rachele Kanigel is an associate professor of journalism and advisor to Golden Gate Xpress publications at San Francisco State University. She has been highly involved in student press rights work nationally and is the author of The Student Newspaper Survival Guide. Kanigel is a great champion of the free speech rights of her students, and last year she stepped forward with a declaration in support of a student who had invoked the shield law to deny police access to photos he took at the scene of a murder. Kanigel stressed the importance that journalists not be perceived as potential police witnesses. In 2006 California Journalism Education Coalition named Kanigel Journalism Educator of the Year, Four-Year Division. This award is named in honor of Beverly Kees, who was the SPJ NorCal chapter president at the time of her death in 2004.


• SF Public Press / McSweeney’s will be recognized with the News Media award for its extensive explanatory report examining the real cost of the east span replacement section of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The report, which ran on the cover of San Francisco Panorama, which was Issue # 33 of McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, outlined why costs have increased so drastically, examined the obscure Bay Area Toll Authority, and explained why the decision to fabricate key bridge components in the People’s Republic of China contributed to large cost overruns. Seeking information through the California Public Records Act, reporters successfully forced the release of meeting minutes of the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee -- a three-member body comprising state officials who make decisions involving hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts, but whose meetings are closed to the public due to an exemption from California’s open-meetings laws. Despite use of public records laws, reporters had to overcome considerable resistance from the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans). At press time, CalTrans still hadn’t released several hundred requested documents. In some cases, reporters employed unique approaches, including playing one agency against another, or submitting general requests that resulted in an agency itself providing more detailed identification of records it possessed as part of its initial response that reporters’ requests were “overly broad.”


• Sean Webby of the San Jose Mercury News will receive the Professional Journalist award for his series investigating the San Jose Police Department’s use of force. It is mandatory for SJPD officers to fill out a force report each time force is used against a suspect. Despite the SJPD and San Jose City Council's refusal to release these documents, Webby managed to obtain them through public court files. Zeroing in on incidents in which police used force that resulted only in resisting-arrest charges, Webby wrote a series of stories questioning whether resisting arrest is used as a “cover charge.” In a case involving a San Jose State University student, Webby uncovered a cell phone video in which the suspect appeared not to be resisting as officers Tasered him and struck him with a baton. In another story, Webby identified officers who repeatedly used force in resisting arrest cases. While force reports remain confidential, Sean Webby’s expert use of public records brought public scrutiny upon the SJPD’s use of force.

• G.W. Schulz , of the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), will receive a Professional Journalist award for using information obtained through 75 open-records requests to outline the extraordinary investment taxpayers have made to improve homeland security since 2001. As part of a collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity, CIR's "America's War Within" focused on federal preparedness grants, which had been funded to protect local emergency responders from terrorist threats. Evidence already suggested that money was being wasted or mismanaged, but Schulz set out to track the spending of homeland security dollars at a level of detail that no one had previously attempted. It was necessary to go to each state separately and contend with inconsistent records systems, and many of his requests met no response. In the end, Schulz published a series detailing not just wasted and mismanaged spending, but also a lack of standardization across the board that prevents government agencies and members of the public from tracing just how the millions of dollars were ultimately spent.


• State Senator Leland Yee was instrumental in moving forward numerous bills dealing with transparency in government and public access to records. Among these is SB 1696, an amendment to the California Public Records Act that states no state or local agency may control or interfere with the release of records by another agency if those records would normally be public. Yee has also worked to protect journalists. As an Assembly member in 2006, he authored Assembly Bill 2581, which protects students in public universities from punishment for work that is protected under free speech laws. As a member of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, Yee helped craft the San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance, which ensured that city proceedings and records would be available to the public.


• Ann Brick will be honored with a Legal Counsel award for her 20 years of work as the staff attorney of the Northern California American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU-NC) staff attorney. Upon her recent retirement, the ACLU-NC noted that Brick commanded an extensive docket of cases ranging from student rights to government abuses of power, to privacy and free speech. She is most well known for the groundbreaking role she played in significant civil rights issues involving the Internet, including the protection of free expression, privacy, and due process in cyber space. Brick worked on several high-profile First Amendment and Freedom of Information cases, including the National Security Agency wire-tapping lawsuit filed by the ACLU in 2006. Brick also successfully intervened to dissolve a court injunction on the domain wikileaks.org , a site that enabled users to leak documents and other data anonymously. Through her work, Brick strengthened the idea that free speech should be upheld online, as it would be in print or any other medium. Brick also helped forge paths on behalf of women in the legal profession.


• Daniel Borenstein , editorial page columnist for the Contra Costa Times , didn't have an easy time obtaining public employee retirement records, as one of the pensioners even filed a lawsuit to block the release of the data. Following the battle that occurred just to get the information in hand, Borenstein had to construct spreadsheets to dissect and analyze it, and unravel the methods that certain public employees used to retire with pensions significantly higher than their final salaries. Borenstein's hard-hitting series of columns on abuses of the retirement system presented the issue with clarity and precision, making it easy for readers to comprehend how their tax dollars were being eaten by savvy public employees who knew which levers of the retirement system to. As a result of Borenstein’s work, public agencies in the East Bay are reforming their practices to curb abuses of the retirement system.


• Californians Aware has worked for years to educate the public on freedom of information issues and hold government agencies accountable to their transparency obligations. By providing resources such as workshops, legal counsel and its Guide to Open Meetings in California, Cal Aware seeks to empower citizens and journalists. This past year, however, CalAware was held responsible for $80,000 in attorney’s fees after it unsuccessfully filed a claim against a school district for alleged violations of the Brown Act, limiting the non-profit’s ability to operate. As a result of this abuse of anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) motions, the state legislature moved to amend the law that awards the fees.


• Phillip Reese of The Sacramento Bee will be honored with a Computer-Assisted Reporting award for his victories in fighting for access to public records. Reese helped create the Bee ’s data center, where readers can find readily accessible information about state employee salaries, legislative voting records, gifts from lobbyists to legislators, election results by neighborhood, and other important information. Behind these interactive, database-backed projects were Reese’s occasional struggles to wrest public information from government agencies. When the City of Sacramento tried to charge the paper several thousand dollars for employee salary data, he arranged a meeting with the city’s IT workers and a city attorney, questioned how they could be sure the system wasn’t being abused without keeping records in an analyzable format, and argued that providing information to the Bee wouldn’t be a tough job. Several days later, they turned over the data for free. Instead of taking no for an answer in this and other instances, Reese politely persuaded the custodians of records to hand over the material. As a result of his persistence and expertise, the Bee’s readers can now learn more about the inner workings of state and local government than public officials and employees ever would have offered voluntarily.

• Thomas Peele and Daniel Willis of the Bay Area News Group used freedom of information requests to create comprehensive databases for examining public-employee salaries. The reporters submitted dozens of California Public Records Act requests in order to create an online database of the salaries of more than 188,000 public employees, pooled from over 96 government agencies. The publication of these data was no easy task. Uncooperative agencies had to be convinced by Peele, while Willis was left to organize many confusing pieces of data into a format easily comprehended by the public. Once the database was finished, public demand for more information from more government agencies only increased, and the database was expanded.


• Melissa Nix will be honored with the Citizen Award for her persistence and determination in questioning police handling of the mysterious death of Hugues de la Plaza. Without her efforts, de la Plaza’s case might never have received international attention, and flaws within the San Francisco Police Department might have escaped scrutiny. In 2007, Nix got a telephone call informing her that de la Plaza, her ex-boyfriend, had been found dead inside his apartment. The SFPD quickly ruled it a suicide, but after reviewing the facts, Nix, then a reporter for The Sacramento Bee , wasn’t convinced. Acting as a friend, she set out to prove that the SFPD should have been pursing a murderer. She sought information, pressured local government, engaged the media, organized marches and vigils, and filed complaints. After 18 months, San Francisco’s Office of Citizen Complaints declared a “policy failure” on the part of the SFPD, and an independent medical examiner concluded that the death was a homicide. The story was covered internationally. Nix’s work brought to light an abysmal success rate for solving homicides, and brought about reforms within the SFPD’s homicide division.


• Rita Williams, a highly respected and longtime journalist at KTVU-TV, was a driving force for six years in the push to establish a media room in the San Francisco federal building to provide broadcasters with the same access to interviews as print reporters. Following the Oklahoma City bombings and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, television and radio equipment was no longer allowed in the federal pressroom. Through her work on the Courts / Media Committee in federal court, she pushed to restore access. She rounded up funds from 10 TV stations, solicited support from security agencies, and even won support from federal court to make this happen. The project got financial support from news stations, the Federal Bar Association, and courts. The new policy took effect in March 2009 and will be invaluable for the years to come.


• The San Francisco State photojournalism student , who wishes to remain anonymous and who was defended by First Amendment attorney James Wagstaffe, will receive a Student award for his success in invoking the shield law. The student was working on a photojournalism project when his subject, Norris Bennett, was killed. Police tried to gain access to his photos, but he invoked a shield law that allows journalists to cover events without becoming witnesses or sharing information with law enforcement because he feared for his life if the photos were shared. Because he was not working as a full-time reporter at a news organization, the question as to whether the shield law should apply to him was key in this case. Since he posted his work on a blog and was planning to sell the photo essay as a freelancer, the judge ruled that he was covered. Thanks to this student’s case, murky issues surrounding the question of who should be considered a journalist became just a little clearer, since he helped to demonstrate that the shield law can and should be applied broadly.